It would be interesting, if disheartening, to know how much time is spent debating the supposed “rights and wrongs” of rape, sexual assault and harrassment, as opposed to time spent supporting victims and educating potential perpetrators. I’d guess that it’s a lot. We don’t get that many pieces on why rape is bad because apparently that’s something we all know (all of us, that is, apart from the “nutters”, as Caitlin Moran would say). By contrast, there’s plenty of time spent picking over the supposed nuances, the grey areas, the “he said/she said” and whatever other flippantly offensive terms pop up whenever we’re sitting in judgement on those who make accusations (but rarely their accusers).
As someone who genuinely does think sexual assault is wrong (as opposed to “most extremely abhorrent” or “an incredibly heinous crime” – you can always spot a rape apologist by the hyperbole he or she deploys in order to demonstrate how much he or she hates “proper” rape) I do, to be honest, experience some reluctance when it comes to explaining why victims aren’t responsible for assault, why active consent matters, why it’s not “just common sense” to restrict women’s freedom in a way that legitimises the sense of entitlement of potential attackers, why women aren’t the same as iphones etc. First, it’s boring to have to make the same obvious arguments again and again, and second, you wonder whether they make any difference anyhow. If anything, actually arguing that rape is wrong – as opposed to merely saying “it’s wrong” before arguing the precise opposite – is something of a red rag to MRAs. They can’t stand it when you seek to hold rapists responsible for their actions. Strange, that.
This evening I had a look at the Mail on Sunday, for which there is no excuse other than that I was bored and flicking about randomly on my phone while squashed beneath two children watching The Gruffalo’s Child. Anyhow, it was a bad thing to do, so I won’t actually link to the article I chanced upon (hypocritical, I know, but I’m feeling guilty enough). Basically, in response to the Lib Dem’s quaintly named “groping” scandal, Rachel Johnson has taken it upon herself to offer an argument in favour of gropers everywhere.* You can tell she’s doing this because she starts her piece with “far be it from me to condone unwanted groping or fondling” (i.e. “I’m about to condone unwanted groping and fondling”). You can also tell from the headline “Funny how you’re not a ‘victim’ if it’s George Clooney’s hand on your knee”. Yes, the basic point is that sexual assault isn’t sexual assault if the victim wants it! So it’s all down to the whims of the victim! Poor men (or “poor sausages”, as Johnson patronisingly puts it).
In a desperate effort to make her argument more complex or more amusing or both, Johnson comes up with what she calls the Pester Curve, which favours men whom women find attractive: “The higher a man is up the Pester Curve, the higher his chance of success, and a clean getaway” (not sure what’s meant by “getaway”, but that’s what it says). A man lower down the scale struggles and “has to apply the modus operandi of professional lungers everywhere, which is that if you proposition ten women, three will be so surprised by the unsolicited attention that they will submit”. And indeed, when it’s put in those terms, who doesn’t feel sorry for the hapless groper? Johnson admits that it may be “actively unpleasant and creepy” for his victim but “it is actively pleasant when a man you have been secretly lusting after does the same, and do let’s hold on to that”. Yeah, let’s! Makes it all okay again, really.
I have heard this argument before (from a male family member, who told me that “all these women, they don’t mind being harassed by a man they like”. My response that “then it’s not harassment” was somehow seen to be proving his point). It is patently ridiculous and also frightening, given the extent to which it disregards consent as being key to acceptable sexual conduct. It’s not a million miles away from the former BNP official who once claimed that “rape is like being force-fed chocolate cake”. On a very basic level, it’s an inability to see that choice and agency matter in this one particular case. I doubt very much that Johnson makes this mistake with other crimes. Since I might lend money to someone I like and trust, is it unfair that others can’t just take it? Since I’d happily go on an all-expenses paid holiday with some people, is it hypocritical not to want others to abduct me?
Johnson claims to be fear that “life will be diminished […] if men are so terrified by the revelations of sex abuse, complicity, omerta and cover-ups in our institutions that they stop making passes at women, without having gained prior consent”. The same old message that “unwanted attention” is a price worth paying in order to keep everyone on their toes. Yet as Amanda Marcotte argues so brilliantly here, men are not that ignorant. Knowing when to stop is not the great puzzle everyone pretends it is.
The right for men to touch the bodies of those who don’t want to be touched seems to me a curious one to defend. It’s such an unimportant thing to want – where is the attraction in grabbing unresponsive flesh? – yet it has such a terrible impact on others. Sometimes I wonder if it’s real. Perhaps “defending sexual assault” is a parlour game that’s just got out of hand. All the same, as long as these attitudes are out there, affecting lives, we’re all obliged to play along, too.
* I’m not a huge fan of the term “groping” but it’s hard to know what else to use. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper offers an excellent analysis of the problem here.
PS I have named this post badly several times, each time reinforcing misconceptions about rape and assault. Hence the rather vague title. And a promise to try harder not to buy into the rape myths that I want others to counter.